Reporting on ABC News' story about how administration talking points about the September 11 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic facilities had gone through an inter-agency editing process, World News Tonight anchor Diane Sawyer on May 10 introduced the program's coverage by claiming the White House had been "challenged today during a leadership crisis." Sawyer reported the latest round of Benghazi questions and allegations about the talking points revolved around "what the president did on Benghazi" eight months ago, the night four Americans were killed.
Neither claim was true. There's no indication Obama played any role in the crafting of the talking points, which had nothing to do with what the president did during the attack. But for ABC, the editing process for a sheet of talking points is now considered a "leadership crisis."
As wildly inaccurate and misleading as Sawyer's brief introduction was, it helped in terms of marking how deeply the mainstream news media have ventured into the GOP scandal culture in order to help legitimize the right-wing effort to turn Benghazi into full-fledged political firestorm at home.
With Republicans working in tandem with Fox News to prop up Congressional hearings that have provided a framework for news coverage in recent weeks, the Benghazi story has taken on a nostalgic, 1990's feel recalling a time when the same Republican Party and the same conservative media noise machine hounded a Democratic president with endless allegations of wrongdoing. Punctuated by hearings, the wild allegations were excitedly churned through news cycles by reporters and pundits in hot pursuit of "scandal." (And used by conservatives to raise campaign cash.)
It's especially reminiscent of Whitewater, the octopus-like investigation that stretched on for years, cost tens of millions of dollars, and even branched out into scrutinizing President Bill Clinton's sex life. Over time, the vast majority of those endless Clinton allegations were proven to be hollow. But aidded by some regrettable journalism, the relentless scandal culture took hold and managed to damage to the Clinton administration. Now it's time for a rerun.
As the Beltway's Benghazi witch-hunt gathers momentum, and questions about relatively minor events, such as the inter-agency drafting of national security talking points, are portrayed as deeply disturbing news revelations (while previous, disproved Benghazi allegations get quietly shelved), it's uncanny how the storyline more and more resembles the early days of the Whitewater fiasco, and other ancillary Clinton pursuits.
Note how the formerly Whitewater-obsessed Wall Street Journal editorial page is calling for the creation of a Select Committee to investigate Benghazi. The paper insists it's the only way "for the U.S. political system to extricate itself from the labyrinth called Benghazi," when a Select Committee could accomplish the opposite and drag the story out for years. Indeed, the whole point of the GOP's Whitewater model is to create a political labyrinth for the White House, and to then wallow in it and hope the press does, too. That's the Whitewater model; to launch a "scandal" that can sustain itself through endless investigation for months and years on end.
Like Whitewater, look at how the Benghazi production now comes complete with dubious claims about whistleblowers (and their unreliable advocate), controversial talking points, and leaked Congressional testimony used to whip up media anticipation. But it's testimony that ultimately failed to advance the story.
Bill Clinton and his former senior advisers must be suffering severe bouts of déjà vu these days.
"All of this is a grotesque over-reaction - for transparently political purposes," wrote blogger Andrew Sullivan in a recent Benghazi-related post, headlined "Whitewater Round II."
In fact, Whitewater seems to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts within far-right circles and might now be considered a model of partisan attack. This week, Fox's Megyn Kelly referred to Whitewater as "one of the biggest scandals that we've seen in recent years." Kelly then introduced former Whitewater deputy counsel Robert Bittman to comment on the possible need for an independent prosecutor to investigate Benghazi. (In the real world, Whitewater is often used as shorthand for a waste of money and a pointlessly partisan and incompetent investigation.)
The key to the Whitewater formula for Republicans is to get the press to play along and to get the press to hype stories beyond their importance while simultaneously not penalizing Republicans when their previous, laundry list of allegations fall flat. In recent days, that formula has been working for the GOP.
Recall that over last eights months, Republicans, with Fox News and the right-wing media is their amplifier, have claimed Obama never called the Benghazi attack an act of terror. They suggested former CIA director David Patraeus was forced to resign because of Benghazi, that the White House had demanded changes in the original Benghazi talking points. That Obama watched Americans die in real-time last September 11 and refused to send help. That so-called whistleblowers were blocked from testifying about the Benghazi, along with Benghazi survivors. Also, that Hillary Clinton was to blame for security cutbacks at the Benghazi facility, and faked a concussion in order to avoid testifying about the terror attack.
False, false, false, false, false, false, and false.
But has that established record of shoddy misinformation slowed the press from embracing Benghazi as a stirring controversy? No. Just like it rarely slowed down the Whitewater coverage, which for years allowed Republicans to swing and miss without ever being called out.
In terms of hyping Benghazi stories beyond their importance, the New York Times conceded in its May 11 report about the fresh controversy surrounding the drafting of the talking points, "the e-mails do not reveal major new details about the attack or other discrepancies in the administration's evolving account of it." But that didn't stop the paper from pushing the article on page one.
Why? Because like the new ground rules that the press established for Clinton, it's the appearance of impropriety that makes it a news event. That, and the fact that Republicans are deeply, deeply troubled by that appearance of impropriety.
At the same time, the scandal culture is reinforced by dubious journalism and commentary that hardens erroneous GOP talking points, such as when NBC's Tom Brokaw claimed on May 13 that United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice went on the Sunday morning talk shows immediately following the Benghazi attack and "in a very emphatic way" she said "it was not a terrorist attack." In truth, Rice stressed during her September 16 appearance on Face The Nation, "it's clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence" at the diplomatic facilities in Benghazi.
The Benghazi circus, created by Republicans and their allies in the right-wing media, has been punctuated by eights months of steady lies about Obama and his administration. For the press to now ignore that avalanche of falsehoods and to then wildly overhype the issue of edits to a sheet of talking points is to return to the dark journalistic days of Whitewater. It's to return to a time when the Beltway press enabled and promoted a dishonest smear campaign.
Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters blog.